Omnivision Is 40/40

My dear wife’s first car, a snazzy lemon-yellow 1972 Mercury Capri, triggered a kind of self-preservation instinct, making Susan want to learn how to avoid being ripped off in repair shops, so she and her mother signed up for a course called Power Puff Mechanics. Based on the uncomprehending look Susan returns whenever I hold forth on Renault’s success with pneumatic valve springs during the 1989 Formula One season, it’s evident the course covered little beyond identifying battery terminals and explaining “how pistons work,” as she puts it. I doubt there was even a classroom exercise explaining that a piston is like a king because both have crowns. Chalk up another failure to public education.

Widowhood would have motivated Susan’s mother, Margaret, to join the mechanics class. I never met my father-in-law, but his legacy as a guy who could enjoy just one or two beers while listening to the Dodgers and puttering around the yard has awed me. Ray was resolutely a Dodge man. His choice of a boxy Coronet in the early 1950s was followed by a “two-tone, gold-and-white something with fins,” according to Susan, and then “a big gold square thing.” Without pictorial evidence, I assume she refers to the Lancer and then a more extravagant Monaco or Polara. These would have been part of the gaudily confident fleet of Chevys, Fords, and maybe a Studebaker or Rambler that festooned the neighborhood in Downey, a suburb of Los Angeles. Their housing tract alongside the Golden State Freeway had snuffed out an orange grove in 1949, when Susan was born. Sixty years later it remains a nice, if noisy, place, although BMWs now make a strong showing in the indigenous fleet.

After Ray’s 1972 death, my mother-in-law’s new independence extended to buying a car every so many years and overseeing its maintenance. When it was time for her next Dodge, she went to the local agency—she was of the generation that still used that term—but found herself ignored in the showroom. The salesmen might have thought she was there to apply for a cleaning job. Margaret already had one, as director of a hospital’s housekeeping staff. Telling herself they weren’t getting her business, she decamped, switching to an unremembered brand, perhaps Chrysler.

Learning to Drive Ever So Cautiously

Susan, who is quite petite, learned to drive in those big Dodges. Her native town, situated in the southern Los Angeles basin, is as flat as a crepe, and winding boulevards are conspicuously absent; the biggest navigational challenge was to avoid running into the Firestone tire factory on the way to selecting a bay at the drive-in restaurant. (The oldest McDonald’s is at Lakewood Boulevard and Florence Avenue, right there in Downey.) Inquiries about use of the Dodge always made her father protest, “You’ll put miles on it!” She wondered what the car was for, if not to put on miles. It does seem odd that a family would have a car not to drive it, but back then “low miles” had all the cachet that today accrues to “federal bailout.”

She learned to drive with the most scrupulous caution. This leads her to brake well past the apex of corners, which for me, as the passenger, makes Dustin Hoffman’s dental ordeal in Marathon Man seem inconsequential. Turning left onto a multilane road, she first takes the inside lane and then puts on her right-turn signal, swivels her head to look for Craig Breedlove overtaking in the Spirit of America, and finally moves over to the desired outside lane. Responding to my wholly well-intended critiques, she points out that she’s never been in an accident. Having managed to miss the Big One at Talladega doesn’t add up to driving accomplishment, but I keep it to myself in the interests of conjugal harmony.

The fact is, when I entered the picture in 1980, I was scraping by and didn’t own a car. The story of her father sleeping on benches during the Great Depression was something I could almost relate to. Susan had a good job with benefits and by then owned a 1978 Dodge Omni. She liked the Capri but needed a four-door sedan for transporting friends to church and numerous little nieces to ice cream stands. The fact that the package included a hatchback was a pleasing extra. As the domestic industry’s best subcompact, the Omni, a transparent copy of the Volkswagen Rabbit, represented the antithesis of Susan’s childhood Dodges. For one thing, of course, it utilized front-wheel drive. And rather than a Magnum or Hemi under the hood, it had a meek four-cylinder engine; the Omni went button-stitching down the road with all of 75 hp at its disposal. The SOHC 1.7-liter powerplant was sourced from Volkswagen. I once asserted this fact to a guy who said he knew cars because he owned a ’78 Corvette, which was like saying he knew American culture because he watched Charlie’s Angels. Even though “Volkswagen” was plainly stamped on it, he contended the engine couldn’t have been a VW. After all, it was watercooled, and it wasn’t a boxer.  

Living with a Few Flaws

The Omni curled up over a modest 99.1-inch wheelbase, weighed a scant 2145 pounds, and went for a base price of $3976. Uncharacteristically cutting loose, Susan chose one of the two orange exteriors—spitfire orange or sunrise orange were offered—and the optional roof rack. When placed under my mismanagement, the Omni had registered about 25,000 trouble-free miles. Although I grew up thinking and talking about cars, I had driven only as much as the average Popemobile registers and had not even passed a power puff mechanics course. I could change oil and tires and once replaced the fuel pump on an Austin-Healey Sprite, but anything to do with carburetors seemed to belong to the realm of Carl Sagan. I also had the unfortunate, bullheaded tendency to ignore instrument panel warning lights and to profoundly believe the Burbank grease pit guys who decreed that the Omni’s three-speed TorqueFlite automatic transmission’s fluid looked clear and I could forget changing it.

We first noticed engine overheating on the sharp climb Interstate 15 makes in the searing desert just northeast of Las Vegas. The red light had to be related to the draw of the air conditioning system, so we switched off the compressor until the highway leveled out on the plateau. Indeed, the indicator light went off, and we turned on the A/C again. The indicator light went away until we drove that same route the next summer. Of course we had no idea the radiator had begun to fill with sediment. The cylinder head may have been aluminum, but the iron block, as though suffering from some autoimmune deficiency, was consuming itself and abundantly contributing particles. Meanwhile, inside the neglected transmission, varnish had begun to develop. The effect would ultimately be that, once the selector was moved from drive, the transmission, as long as it remained well-heated, would not go back into gear. Wherever we might find ourselves waiting, it was necessary to sit with a foot on the brake, engine running, or to shift into park, shut off the car, and let it cool way down before restarting and reengaging the transmission. We were always near financial ruin, and the problem didn’t seem dangerous, so we undertook no expensive repair but instead lived with the quirk.

After Susan became my beautiful bride, we went to Fairbanks, Alaska, for two years of adventure. Our first job was managing a rooming house inhabited by tradesmen awaiting their union calls to work at Prudhoe Bay. While they lolled around Harvey’s Rooms, Susan happened to mention the Omni was having carburetor problems; soon thereafter a committee of five men was assessing the situation under the hood. I shooed them away. What would have happened if they had gotten it apart but couldn’t fix it? My wife hadn’t thought of that. Maybe I was incompetent, but I hadn’t abdicated my command. A professional, certified mechanic replaced the carb. Then, with the Omni running well, we undertook a little road trip. At that time it was unusually hot in the interior of Alaska, well into the 80s, and every bag of ice in the stores had been snapped up. Our day’s journey took us to a hot springs about 100 miles away—not that we immersed ourselves in it; we were just Lookie Lous, as Susan likes to say. About thirty miles into the return, the engine warning lit up red for the first time in ages, but naturally we ignored it. Before long the engine coughed because of a blown head gasket and refused to drag us any farther. We were stranded out in the Steese Highway wilderness. But happy-go-lucky, husband-and-wife, weekend gold miners fetched us from the roadside, offered consolation, and carried us back to town in their Ford pickup. We arranged for towing. The Omni’s cylinder head hadn’t warped, and I had sure learned a lesson. For good measure, we got the radiator cleaned out, solving the overheating problem.

The End of an Omni

In February 1983 we drove the Omni all the way back to Los Angeles. One thing that made the trip even more remarkable was the week’s warmer-than-average daytime temperatures of around 30 degrees (instead of the expected reading of 15 below) that allowed us to stop along the Alaska Highway; we could leave the tranny in drive but set the emergency brake and get out of the car to take pictures of the immense frozen lakes and experience the arresting silence of Canada’s Yukon and northern British Columbia. I’ll never forget descending through the Fraser River Gorge, entering the temperate Puget Basin, and suddenly smelling moist earth for the first time in months. Susan remembers stopping there for ice cream cones and sitting outside to eat them.

We drove the Omni two more years. In 1985 it had slightly more than 80,000 miles and was about to welcome yet another replacement carburetor to the aluminum manifold when we traded it. I let the car cool completely a few blocks from the dealership before bringing it for the salesman’s test-drive. He took it around a square mile with me in the front passenger seat. For some reason, on the homestretch, he capriciously downshifted to second and then missed the upshift, momentarily finding neutral instead—but the tranny hadn’t fully heated up, drive reengaged, and I exhaled. Back at the showroom, I wolfed up his offer of $800 and came home a different man in a new Honda. New Hondas will do that. So will dumping a lemon on someone.

Susan still talks about her great little Omni. This much is true: we had lots of fun with it, including the long journeys to and from Alaska. Meanwhile, I’ve become more experienced with cars. Today, if I encountered a creampuff ’78 Omni on the market, I’d somehow find a way to lay off, even if it has the premium woodgrain bodyside appliqué. On the other hand, presented with the right ’64 Polara, a big gold square thing like my father-in-law Ray might have driven, well, I could be a sucker for that, just as I was for his daughter.

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